Jewish World Review March 25, 2003 / 21 Adar II 5763

Paul Greenberg

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Go to the seers and poets | It was the moment before war. And time to take a last look at what we were like. As it all becomes part of a prewar past.

It was time to remember how we went from unity only a few months ago to squabbling now, from a unanimous resolution at the U.N. to its current irresolution, even dissolution.

We got here by appealing to the disunited nations, and letting its Inspector Clouseaus bumble along indefinitely. We got here by playing Saddam Hussein's favorite game: delay and obstruct. Not just time was lost but constancy of purpose. We let ourselves be distracted.

For 12 years, that international community, including the United States, dawdled. A decade was squandered. Rifts developed. In place of leading, America temporized. And what happened is what always happens when America nods off. Tyrants prosper, and tyrants with grandiose ambitions prosper most.

Explanations for our inattention abound, but in the end they do not differ greatly from Churchill's summary of how a different war came about: "Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong -- these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history." And tragedy.

There are really no prewar or postwar periods in history, only interwar. For as Plato well knew, "Only the dead have seen the end of war." It is when men believe that peace requires nothing but vague words, and empty gestures -- like U.N. resolutions and inspections -- that the world is most vulnerable to little thugs with grand delusions.

Now the cloud that was no bigger than a man's hand a few years ago darkens the sky. Let us consult not only the politicians and commanders, but the poets and seers, and ask how we came to this. For when at last the Anglo-American allies and French came awake to the danger facing them, it was the danger from each other. While the threat slithered away.

How did a snake get in the tower?
Delayed in the democracies
By departmental vanities,
The rival sergeants run about
But more to squabble than find out.

-- W.H. Auden, "New Year Letter"

There is no time to waste on what might have been, the saddest words of tongue or pen. The grains of sand in the hourglass have run out. There were those who said all we had to do was turn the glass upside down, and begin the process all over again. Saddam Hussein would have liked that. All he asked, really, was more time. Time to destroy the weapons that the U.N.'s inspectors were allowed to discover. And time to go on developing the others. No doubt about it, what Iraq needed was more inspectors -- about 250,000 of them with familiar designations like the 101st Airborne and Third Infantry and Royal Marines. And Iraq is about to get them. For this is the moment just before -- just before cities fall, the people rise, the statues topple, and the dictator's bravado expires with him:

Epitaph for a Tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after.
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

-- W.H. Auden

Now this molasses-like Rush to War has finally comes to its moment of decision, but

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow.

-- T.S. Eliot

Men pray that this will be only a little war, knowing full well that to all those about to kill and be killed, suffer and inflict suffering, this will be the greatest war. There is no minimizing what portends.

But neither can those who delayed this assault minimize their responsibility. Year after year, they put off this ever clearer, ever more present danger. Their facile "solutions," their reliance on the useless Kofi Annans and Hans Blixes of the world, their eternal temporizing . has only played into the hands of evil in the world -- another reality they were unable to face squarely. Until others had to.

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